July 26, 1993 12:00 PM

Weddings?” asks Mickey Rooney. “I’ve been to a lot of them.” He sure has. Since 1942, when Hollywood’s cherub-faced boy next door married sex symbol Ava Gardner, until 1978, when he wed country and western singer-songwriter Jan Chamberlin, who is still his wife, the actor has marched to Mendelssohn’s ditty eight times. In the process, Rooney, 72, has picked up a few insights, along with nine children, two stepchildren and four grandchildren.

Rooney dusts off his marriage memories in a high-rise apartment in Chicago near the end of a seven-week run in the musical comedy Lend Me a Tenor before heading to Broadway to appear in The Will Rogers Follies. Recalling his groom-about-town days, he dismisses the notion that he gave every girl he dated a gold band. “God, no! I would have been married 40 times!” he thunders, adding, “I was selective. I was looking for a woman who knew how to be a woman…who knew how a man needs to be treated: She has to let him think he’s the boss.” Why did it take seven auditions to find just one good mate? “My partners,” he says, “weren’t what we call in horse racing parlance routers. They were sprinters; they went out of the gate, but then they stopped. They couldn’t go the distance.”

The 19-year-old thoroughbred Gardner—who once dismissed Rooney as “a midget”—didn’t share his love of golf and ponies. The marriage ended “abruptly,” says Mickey. “She just told me she wanted a divorce.” But it wasn’t for lack of romance. “When you went with a girl in those days, there was no sex involved,” he says. “You sent a girl gardenias every time you went with her. I don’t think girls today know what a corsage is.”

His search for bliss led Rooney far from Hollywood at times. In his 1991 book, Life Is Too Short, he described second wife Betty Jane Rase, Miss Birmingham (Ala.) of 1944, as “totally oblivious to anything going on outside our home.” Rooney recalls, “We just weren’t compatibly compatible.” Wives No. 4 and No. 5, model Elaine Mahnken and California beauty queen Barbara Ann Thomason, apparently presented similar problems: Rooney admits to cheating on both. In 1965, Thomason began an affair with actor Milos Milosevic. The two were found dead in a murder-suicide in Mickey’s L.A. house in 1966. “I died when she did,” Rooney says. “I am furious at what happened to her.” He rebounded with a 100-day marriage to Thomason’s close friend Marge Lane (“I think that was her name anyway”).

Despite the multiple nuptials, Rooney kept looking—and marrying. “The fact is,” he says, “man was not meant to live alone, nor was woman. That’s why I persisted and finally found Jan.” At this point, Rooney brandishes his favorite photo of Jan, taken in 1987. “That’s what she used to look like,” says the actor, pointing to the svelte image. “He’s going to get after me about all the weight I’ve put on,” Jan says with an embarrassed laugh. “I’m doing it not because it bothers me but because it bothers her,” says Rooney. “I’m doing it for her sake.”

Such antics aside, Jan says, “We can’t stand to be apart.” And Rooney has no regrets. “I’m not ashamed of anything.” Would he marry all those women again? “Absolutely,” he insists. “I loved every one of them.”

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